javabeans: Happy New Year, happy tenth anniversary, happy 2017, happy everything-that-will-be-better-than-2016!
girlfriday: Yay, I’ve never been happier for a new year to start! I still can’t believe Dramabeans is old enough to be a tween!
javabeans: Oh god, is it time for braces, backtalk, and bad attitudes? I’m still the boss of you!
girlfriday: You tell it!
javabeans: In keeping with the whole 10 motif, we thought we’d dust off our trusty ol’ Top 10 series, and honor our tenth birthday by shoving everything into categories of ten.
girlfriday: Because we like symmetry, and themes, and simple math.
javabeans: One of those things is a lie. But surely if a list is good, then a list with a vaguely conceptualized theme is better!
girlfriday: One of the reasons we wanted to do more of the Dramabeans Top 10 series is that it’s a good way to induct new drama addicts, and give new watchers a good place to start. What good is it being a drama addict if you can’t help others start their addiction?
javabeans: And what more apt topic for the first one than dramas that actually did hook new addicts? In the time we’ve been following dramaland and running this site, we’ve come to see certain patterns emerge, and surges of interest that are often driven by specific projects, which act as the gateway to the rabbit hole. Does that metaphor make sense?
girlfriday: It does to me. Are we all rabbits in this metaphor?
javabeans: I think we’re all Alice, only we get used to Wonderland, probably because we drank the Kool-Aid and things started seeming normal there. I’m not really selling dramaland, am I?
girlfriday: Thankfully, we don’t really need to sell dramaland, since if people watch a good, properly cracky gateway drama, it’ll sell itself and then they’ll never know what hit ‘em.
javabeans: With that said, here’s our list of Top 10 Gateway Dramas to Hook Your Friends On. Maybe these selections seem pretty basic to longtime drama fans and Dramabeans readers, but this list is more for the uninitiated.
girlfriday: Yes, these are the dramas you want to recommend to that friend who’s never seen a Korean drama and wants to know why you always have panda eyes after a long weekend.
javabeans: Or any weekend, really. It was tough narrowing selections down to just 10, since any proper drama addict has to have at least dozens of dramas on the favorites list, but we created the rules, so I guess now we have to suffer by them.
girlfriday: Stupid rules.
1. Boys Before Flowers (2009)
javabeans: There’s a reason this drama pops up with particular frequency in our Spill the Beans posts, where fans dish about how they initially got drawn into the world of K-dramas: It’s crazy addictive. It isn’t the only show to ever feature high school romance, or craft ultra-luxe wish-fulfillment fantasies, or make alpha heroes fall to their knees for penniless spunky heroines. Nor does it stand out for having an unusually beautiful cast; don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful, but so is basically everybody else in dramas these days. And yet… it had something crazy special to it, a special ingredient that made it incredibly gratifying to watch, which was probably in large part a madly entertaining dose of WTF-ery. And man, was it effective.
The term “guilty pleasure” gets thrown around a lot when talking about Boys Before Flowers, probably because the drama is flawed a million ways to Tuesday; even those of us who love the show recognize the ways in which it’s sometimes sloppy, frequently cheesy, and completely over-the-top. Yet there’s an undeniable lightning-in-a-bottle quality to this show, a magical addictiveness that defies logic, like MSG for the brain: This is junk, I shouldn’t be eating this, I may feel guilty in the morning but right now it’s maybe my favorite thing ever and I can’t stop. I say we never stop.
2. Coffee Prince (2007)
girlfriday: I get asked a lot by friends and random strangers what drama they should watch first, and without fail I say: Coffee Prince. It’s just one of the best starter dramas I know and a safe bet, because everybody—even ajusshis, as my dad can attest—likes Gong Yoo. Despite now being ten(!) years old, Coffee Prince is one of those dramaland classic romances that ages like a fine wine, and still remains relevant and addictive and squee-worthy, long after copycats have come and gone.
One of the reasons I recommend Coffee Prince so often is because it has such an addictive one-line premise: A tomboy girl gets a job at a coffee shop that only hires pretty boys, and the boss starts to fall for her despite not knowing that she’s a girl. Right away it asks, What does it mean if he loves her anyway?—and one of the reasons this drama stands the test of time is that it doesn’t cop out in addressing that central conflict and does it in an emotionally gripping, heart-wrenchingly satisfying way. Any drama fan can tell you that crossdressing rom-coms are a peculiarly popular sub-genre of Korean dramas, and it’s really Coffee Prince that made that phenomenon happen. I happen to like all crossdressing dramas, but you know what they say about first loves in dramaland—nothing can replace it.
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3. My Name Is Kim Sam-soon (2005)
javabeans: Sometimes you just need to feel like there’s a heroine who gets you—and a drama that appreciates you for who you are, and not who you feel, on your worst days, you aren’t living up to be—and no show does that better than My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, which was so much more than just another workplace romance or modern-careerwoman success story: It was downright empowering. It was a transformative show when it first aired, offering up a much-needed new kind of heroine; dramas till that point had featured primarily sweet doormats or plucky Candys, the more waif-like the better. And then Sam-soon charged in with her loud mouth and saucy attitude and refused to take guff from others; she took pride in her work as a patissier, didn’t let her boss push her around, and somehow balanced backbone with compassion. She stood up for herself in ways that were inspiring, heartwarming, and often hilarious.
Powered by Sam-soon’s endearing personality and smart writing that still holds up over a decade later, My Name Is Kim Sam-soon is the kind of show that strikes a chord emotionally at the same time that it’s tickling your funny bone, and has the added benefit of providing vicarious satisfaction for anybody who’s ever had to deal with an unreasonable boss or a pushy mom or a society that tells you you still need work to be lovable. (Spoiler alert: You don’t.)
4. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)
HeadsNo2: What makes Sungkyunkwan Scandal an appealing choice in recruiting potential converts is its knack for combining some of dramaland’s favorite (read: most addictive) tropes—crossdressing, reverse harem hijinks, fusionized history, and a hot rising cast—in a fun, adventurous story of youth friendship and romance that was breezy fun then, and still holds up today.
The fact that it’s set in the Joseon era is just icing on the cake, since there’s nothing all that historical about this fusion sageuk other than the setting, which paints a picture of the history and times surrounding our characters without getting too mired in the details. Sungkyunkwan took the crossdressing rom-com and found a way to raise the stakes by setting it in Joseon, where gender rules were stricter and the consequences were naturally higher. Being a scholar at that time was a calling strictly reserved for men, and a young woman who was determined to get the same opportunities as the boys had to actually become one of the boys. Cue: male garb, borrowed name, and new residence in the shared dormitories, leading to roomie hijinks aplenty, especially when she bested the boys at their own game. Buoyed by youthful effervescence and good-natured wit, this is just one of those dramas that makes it impossible for us not to smile along with it, and once the hook gets you, it doesn’t let go.
5. Answer Me 1997 (2012)
girlfriday: This is an easy one for me to recommend to my friends, because it’s a story about my generation. Anyone who’s ever faithfully recorded their favorite TV shows on VHS and spent hours making mixtapes will watch this drama with a special kind of nostalgia in their hearts. But really, Answer Me 1997 made waves because it’s a universal story about anyone’s youth—what it’s like to be a teenager and not have things figured out, what it means when friendships falter, or turn to love. It tells small, relatable stories about regular kids growing up in regular families, but with sharp wit and a fanatical level of detail for the era it portrays.
On paper it’s just the story of six friends who live in one neighborhood in Busan in the 1990s, but the key to this drama’s success (which spawned an entire franchise) was the perspective of the characters in the present day, looking back on their youth fondly and withholding information about how the romantic pairings ended up. It’s the rosy-tinted perspective that makes the whole drama feel like a love letter to youth, and family, and friendship, and a simpler time. If you know anyone who loved Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life and The Wonder Years, this is the show for them.
6. City Hunter (2011)
javabeans: City Hunter is my go-to drama recommendation when someone asks for a show to watch with a boyfriend/husband/partner, not because I like making gender-based generalizations about taste, but because when meeting other drama fans in person, this has been by far the most popular gateway drama named by the husbands and boyfriends in attendance. Its strength as a gateway show is that it has a little something for everyone: superhero vigilante capers, heartfelt revenge backstory, hero with a secret identity, youthful romance, high stakes, creative fight scenes, guns, blood, and intrigue. For an action drama it’s funny, for a political drama it’s fast-paced and exciting, and for a romance it’s not overly done.
With action that’s more fun-spirited than hardcore, City Hunter takes on a sort of Batman-lite feel: Our hero adopts a cavalier Bruce Wayne-esque persona by day, then takes down corrupt politicians as the mysterious “City Hunter” by night. Undercover capers and fighting for the greater good make this a feel-good watch, while the father-son conflict and relationship development give it that extra pinch of heart. Which it then might rip out a little. But in a good way!
7. Nice Guy (2012)
HeadsNo2: There’s nothing like a good melodrama to get you hook, line, and sinker, and Nice Guy stands as a shining example of the genre. Featuring Song Joong-ki (who turns everything he touches into instant crack, enough to be featured three times on this list) as a good man turned bad, then arguably turned good again, this drama was driven by the intriguingly ambiguous hero (or was he an anti-hero?) and his role-reversed relationship with the heiress who hated him, then forgot him, then loved him. Corporate takeovers, deranged family dynamics, and noble imprisonment don’t usually sound exciting, but they were mostly set dressing for some massively screwed-up relationships, like the nice guy who sets his sights on a rich heiress and then ends up becoming her protector, after taking the fall for a woman who then becomes the heiress’s enemy, and therefore his own. The initial ploy grows into a twisted mess of feelings and true intentions, with amnesia and betrayal thrown in for good measure. If it sounds convoluted, it’s because it is, but deliciously so—his motivations always seemed tantalizingly within reach but maddeningly opaque, which kept us on the hook till the end. It’s one of those dramas you pick up and just can’t put down, so use this on your friends who like their shows with just a little bite.
8. I Hear Your Voice (2013)
girlfriday: Supernatural romances are a huge trend in dramaland right now, but I don’t normally suggest aliens and vampires right off the bat (unless I’m trying to convert a diehard Buffy fan), and I Hear Your Voice is what I like to think of as supernatural-lite. It’s mostly a funny rom-com that happens to feature a hero who can hear other people’s thoughts, structured like a legal procedural drama, and made addictive by setting a serial killer loose on our protagonists. It’s definitely a mashup, but it works because the story is gripping and the suspense keeps you coming back for more.
Minus the mind-reading, it’s basically an earnest human drama: A teenage girl saves a young boy’s life when she witnesses his father’s brutal murder, and bravely testifies in court to put the killer away. The little boy vows to protect her with his life, and makes good on his promise when they meet again ten years later. Oh, and it’s also an adorable noona romance with cohabitation hijinks—should I have led with that? More than anything, this drama just has great characters, and I’d especially recommend it to anyone who loves a strong heroine. Lee Bo-young’s sassy public defender still remains one of the toughest, funniest, and most endearing leading ladies I’ve encountered in dramaland, and she’s not even the one with superpowers.
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9. Nine (Nine Time Travels) (2013)
javabeans: A lot of the dramas on this list are romance-driven, and that’s partly because Korean dramas do tend to favor romantic storylines, and also because romance is often the thread that gives a drama its addictive factor. But if you’re looking to hook someone with a drama that isn’t all about the lovelines, Nine makes for a great example of addicting with twisty-turny, intriguing, cerebral plot: A hero stumbles upon incense sticks that, when burned, transport him back twenty years in time (stay with me). What starts out as an exercise in curiosity quickly turns into both a revenge mission to right an injustice in his family’s past and a desperate fight against the ensuing butterfly effect. Moreover, because the time-travel is limited to exactly twenty years in the past, the hero cannot undo what he does in prior trips, and as the plot builds and problems start cropping up, the stakes rise in an ever-building crescendo that makes for a thrilling ride. The time-traveling segments get particularly mind-bendy when we see both past and present unfolding concurrently, on parallel tracks, though nifty directing keeps everything comprehensible. Nine is the kind of drama that keeps the brain engaged and buzzing with speculation, so it’s a great choice for the drama geek who loves crafting theories, analyzing storytelling rules, and mining a drama for clues.
10. Descended From the Sun (2016)
girlfriday: It’s funny, I wouldn’t personally put Descended From the Sun on my list of all-time favorites, but I would absolutely recommend it as a first-time drama to literally everyone and their mother, because it just has that mass appeal. For one, it’s not an old drama that forces you to add caveats like Ignore the weird fashions and ugly hairdos, and the slick production value just speaks for itself. It’s also a drama that needs no setup, since you have a soldier who meets a doctor, and they fall in love in a (beautifully picturesque) war zone.
One of the reasons Descended From the Sun makes for a good gateway drama is that it’s a straight-up romance with all the fat trimmed off—no romantic interlopers to interfere with the love story, no corporate takeovers to slog through. It’s pretty much all romance all the time, multiplied by secondary couples who are also cute, and sufficient life-and-death stakes to keep us on the hook. The real appeal of Descended is the fast-talking banter, where everyone always has the perfect comeback for every line; there’s just a synergy between the witty dialogue and the crackling romantic chemistry that works here, and it makes the drama a breeze to watch, and good bait to lure everyone you know down the rabbit hole.
- Celebrate Dramabeans’ 10th anniversary with us!
- Dramabeans Top 10: Korean dramas about enemies-to-lovers romances
- Dramabeans Top 10: Korean dramas about friends-to-lovers romances
- Dramabeans Top 10: Korean dramas whose endings are better left unwatched (trust us)
- If You Like… Noona Romances
- If You Like… Contract Marriages
- Romantic-comedy drama recommendations
- First-date dramas